Inspiration always helps ring in a new business year. You can practically smell the freshness of starting anew.
The beginning of a new year is a great time to assess your business’ strengths and weaknesses and determine the focus for the upcoming year. The direction may be simply a matter of increasing revenue goals or it may require a semi- or complete reinvention.
Advent, who was known for conference displays is a successful example of the latter. We asked John Roberson, CEO and professed chief cheerleader, a few questions about how he turned his company around in the height of a recession and he responded with candor and helpful insights.
Faleris: What inspired you to reinvent your business? Has there been a decline in the traditional conference business?
Roberson: Is desperation a good answer? Is that too honest? It’s the truth, even if it doesn’t make us look like geniuses. After the economic collapse of 2008 our customers stopped spending on marketing, which meant our traditional conference business came to a hard stop for a few months. We had been working with our corporate customers for a few years to do permanent installations in their headquarters and remote offices, but very few of those customers were going to start a new project with us until the economic picture was clearer.
So we looked at three areas where there was a need for our skills and where the money hadn’t dried up: rapidly growing businesses and colleges and universities needing to use their lobbies, buildings and facilities to actively recruit.
Faleris: What had to happen to make the transition?
Roberson: We had to change our language. We were used to dealing in brand and differentiation. The same concepts applied in our new markets, but they talk about them differently. Once we understood how to make the translation, our skills lined up perfectly with their needs.
Faleris: Often when owners want to make changes in their business, it is difficult to get the rest of the staff to shift toward the new mission. Did you experience that? If so, how did you get everyone on board?
Roberson: Oh yeah. But it wasn’t just the rest of the staff; we had doubts, too. It turns out that most of the doubts were unfounded– we really did know what we needed to do and the stuff we didn’t know wasn’t really that important. Once everyone saw that, we kind of settled in.
Faleris: How different is the marketing for this new segment? Do you utilize different tools?
Roberson: The main difference is that the world of college and universities is really a small community and rapidly growing business are few. With our university business, in those circles, everybody know everybody else, and they talk with each other all the time.
So once we got in the most important marketing focus was on doing a great job. We saw when we did good work, they talked about it. Everything else is a distant second to managing our reputation and making sure that we were delivering. Of course, we still spend a lot of time on a disciplined contact and message strategy that’s pretty tightly targeted.
Faleris: Do you use social media as a tool? If so, how?
Roberson: We do, primarily through Twitter. A lot of college coaches use social media to communicate with their fans and recruits, so it’s an area where we stay active. It hasn’t proven to be super effective for us, but we view it as another opportunity to stay visible in our community of customers.
Faleris: Do you see your company expanding into other areas besides colleges/universities?
Roberson: We love college athletics. It’s the fastest growing part of our business, but we still do corporate work. We really see both sides feeding the other. Our work with corporate brands helps us sharpen our skills at recognizing and communicating differentiation for our athletics customers– it’s so easy for those schools to all start looking alike.
But learning to tell the rich athletic stories succinctly helps us do a better job of story-telling with our corporate customers, which they really need. So I guess we see our business growing in both areas, where we’ll be adding more corporate and retail customers as those opportunities make sense.
Faleris: Is this new direction an additional revenue stream or a complete redirect/redesign from what it did before?
Roberson: It’s both. We still have revenue from the traditional business. But going down this path has revolutionized our company. We’re not the same as we used to be, even though we still have all those customers. We do the work differently now. We feel like we’re playing at a much higher level, even though some of the customer names are the same.
Faleris: What is your company philosophy?
Roberson: Our mission is our philosophy and our tagline: Advent designs experiences that move people. Every word of that phrase is loaded, but moving people is the key. At the surface, moving people means evoking an emotional response, but at a deeper level it means influencing people to make a change. Sometimes that means our work has helped a new recruit choose the college they want to attend. Sometimes it’s affected how they are going to act in a given situation (say, by motivating or inspiring them). It works on many levels. That’s what we do– it’s why we exist.
Faleris: Do you have competitors? If so, how are you differentiating Advent?
Roberson: Yes. There are several firms around the country who do great work and who challenge us to stay sharp on every project. Most of them are great at printing big pictures and at designing and building custom casework, or other cool stuff like that.
We stand out because we’re much more focused on telling the unique story of a school, in a way that clearly communicates how that school is different from the coach down the road who is after the same recruit.
This interview should get you thinking. Reinvent, re-purpose or move forward are the options to be thinking about this time of year. If you haven’t already revised or developed your 2013 business plan, don’t wait. Stay ahead of the game and heed the example of Advent, who never missed a trick.
To see more of Advent’s projects, click here. If you would like more general information, click here.